Imagine Bruce Wayne without his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. One could only imagine the kind of despondent den the gothic Wayne manor would turn into—not to mention the many life-threatening situations, and sometimes even romantic woes, that Bruce would not have been able to overcome on his own.
An age-old profession, the butler has gone from a simple wine bearer in medieval French estates to chief attendant of European manors and now an all-purpose figure who “may double as house manager, personal assistant, valet, chef, bodyguard, and a number of other positions in a household,” wrote American writer Jim Dobson for Forbes.
We see them on the silver screens—the supporting figure who often surprises with their arsenal of abilities, acting as an extension to the affluent and powerful individuals they serve. Skip the masked vigilante plot, and it’s the same act of service found in esteemed hotels, one that they take pride in and one that shapes the hospitality culture of their establishment.
At the original St. Regis in New York, generations of men and women in black frock coats provide the hotel’s distinguished guests with bespoke service. Like the painted cherubs and golden fixtures that decorate the lobby, the tradition has been preserved at the historic hotel since it first opened in 1904, sometimes giving way to mind-boggling requests such as filling up a bathtub with chlorinated pool water.
Just a few blocks away and more than a century later, The Plaza Hotel—iconic for its appearances in literary works like ‘The Great Gatsby’ to Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Home Alone 2’ (1992)—followed suit by expanding its butler service in 2008, a period that saw the profession flourishing in Manhattan.
Beyond the usual hotel service of carrying your luggage and providing you with welcome refreshments, a butler anticipates a guest’s needs further, even before they ask.
This tradition of hotel butlers also made its way to Indonesia, notably established at The Dharmawangsa Jakarta since its inception in 1997. “As far as I could remember, The Dharmawangsa was the only hotel to have butler service in the country. The management flew in a supporting team from The Lanesborough London, managed by Rosewood Hotels and Resort. We were moulded to be just like the classic English butler,” reminisced the hotel’s head butler Yayat Ahdiat, or more affectionately known by returning guests as Kang Yayat.
The early days at The Dharmawangsa saw as many as 32 butlers roaming the hotel’s marbled hallways, a number that even Kang Yayat himself would now admit as extravagant. “Effectively, there should be one butler for every floor,” said the 54-year-old man, who now leads a team of five butlers (including himself) to oversee the hotel’s nine floors and 100 rooms.
He looked resplendent in his butler uniform: a white shirt, accessorised with a solemn black tie, was paired with a grey waistcoat and the iconic black frock coat. He strode through the carpeted corridors with assured steps that spoke to his 25 years of experience as the hotel’s butler.
Stepping into the suite, Kang Yayat’s distinct European-style uniform provided an intriguing contrast to the Javanese theme of the room. As he gracefully carried a silver tray of tea in one hand, his gait resonated with the elegance reminiscent of iconic characters from period dramas, such as Mr. Carson in ‘Downton Abbey’ (2010) and Mr. Stevens from Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ (1993), the latter of which is a movie that Kang Yayat was advised to watch for his butler training.
“I had to go through 12 modules and four to five DVDs. There was one book that was entirely about housekeeping and another one about how to be a gentleman’s valet. It went into topics like how to pack and unpack, the laundry process and even cigars,” recounted Kang Yayat, who took an additional 6-month course with the International Institute of Modern Butler, the same Florida-based institute that trained his contemporaries at St. Regis and The Plaza in New York. “A butler needs to be the purchasing [manager], the chauffeur, the bodyguard. And dealing with a damaged car, that’s also part of it.”
“I love the challenge of handling difficult guests because I have to turn their disappointment into happiness,” Kang Yayat, head butler at The Dharmawangsa.
This breadth of responsibilities would easily skip the guests’ notice with how seamless and discreet the system works. Beyond the usual hotel service of carrying your luggage and providing you with welcome refreshments, a butler anticipates a guest’s needs further, even before they ask.
For example, when a guest checks in at The Dharmawangsa, Kang Yayat and his apprentices would memorise the person’s itinerary during the stay to keep one step ahead. An early meeting in the morning comes with an offer to press your suits and shine your shoes the night before, while a long day of back-to-back seminars usually ends with an offer for a massage at the spa—all you need to do is confirm your availability.
This level of attention pours into details like what and when the guest would like to eat, the number of pillows they prefer, whether their clothes require folding or hanging and even the exact spot where the guest would like to store their shoes. All these are recorded in a guest profile, one of the core responsibilities of a butler at The Dharmawangsa.
“In the butling craft, we are trained to customise the guest’s experience. When they reserve a room, we do a full review of their preferences and needs, which would sometimes involve extending the research to other hotels they’ve previously stayed at. That’s the wow factor,” Kang Yayat smiled proudly.
Yet with thorough preparation, maintaining a guest’s satisfaction also involves many unpredictable moments. This is when the butler has to lean into their ability to manage their emotions, read what the guest needs and provide a solution.
“I love the challenge of handling difficult guests because I have to turn their disappointment into happiness. That’s why a butler needs to be confident in dealing with situations like this,” admitted Kang Yayat, who once had to scour multiple supermarkets across the city in search of an out-of-season fruit. “Whatever is needed to service the guests, I’ll always give my best to meet their expectations—or better yet, exceed them.”
A butler’s selfless commitment is one that can be genuinely felt by those who receive their service.
Amidst the headache of everyday life, it’s undeniably nice to have someone taking over the wheel for you. But not just about anyone has the right frame of mind to fill the position, a sentiment that Kang Yayat firmly believes in.
“Being a butler isn’t about status or completing the required tasks—any primary school kid can be taught to do that. I’d rather hire someone with no experience at all than someone who has all the skills and background but not the attitude. It comes down to the mindset that to serve is better than being served.”
Granted, it’s not an easy mindset to attain, and to provide service of the highest level requires not only a comprehensive understanding of the role but also the ability to build a relationship of trust with the guest. “A butler’s service is discreet, it’s not visible [to onlookers]. Once you enter this room, nobody shall know what goes on inside other than the butler and their guest. That’s why: I see many things but say nothing—that’s the butler philosophy.”
A butler’s selfless commitment is one that can be genuinely felt by those who receive their service. Receiving genuine care and attention, in which your needs and desires are met with serious consideration, leaves a stronger impression than novelty design or gimmicks ever could. This effect is palpable at The Dharmawangsa, where the majority of the hotel’s visitors are returning guests who choose to come back for repeated stays. There’s even a regular who would leave their belongings with Kang Yayat, trusting the butler to set up their room precisely as they like it during their next stay.
“What’s unique here is once a guest feels comfortable with the hotel’s service, community and culture, they always make their next reservations with me, directly to my phone number,” shared Kang Yayat with a tint of amusement in his voice. “We always make sure that when a guest returns, every little detail is taken care of, so that the experience reflects one of coming home.”